For untold months, the ritual never changed. Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. John McCain would approach a Senate lunch or a vote. A pack of reporters would descend on them, asking for updates and wisdom about the comprehensive immigration bill. One or both would supply a handy quote about the doom facing the Republican Party if this bill did not pass. “We’re in a demographic death spiral.” Stuff like that.
The bill did pass, in one chamber, and the media has struggled a bit as the game has moved to the House of Representatives. The people’s house suffers from a distinct lack of Meet the Press guests. On Wednesday afternoon, members of the GOP majority filed in and out of a basement meeting room, with reporters lined up along all the escape routes. When a member exited, and he slowed down, a dozen or more reporters would pounce with questions. What was the mood in the room? Would he back a path to citizenship? Was the Senate bill dead?
It didn’t really matter who the congressman was or if reporters knew who he was. Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who looks like Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga, who looks like Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, paused to take questions from an Omaha World-Herald reporter. Then came the swarm.
“Would you say there’s a general resistance to a pathway to citizenship?” asked a reporter.
“We had a good discussion about the whole variety of perspectives,” said Fortenberry.
“What about the Dreamers, congressman?” asked a reporter about the euphemistically named group of people brought to the United States when they were too young to know they were here illegally. “Is there a sense that those children should be given priority or different treatment than adults?”
“There’s a very serious concern that the Senate bill prioritizes a pathway to citizenship over securing the border.”
Quietly, as Fortenberry heated up the boilerplate, a couple of reporters tried to figure out who was talking.
“Berry?” asked a radio reporter holding an eggplant-shaped microphone toward one of the 200-odd men who could make or break immigration reform.
“Fortenberry,” corrected a colleague.
“Fortenberry,” said the radio hack, turning into the microphone to make note. “Fortenberry. With an F.”
The special meeting was called to deal with exactly that sort of randomness and confusion, from members and from the media. House Republicans have been cast all year as the assassins-in-waiting of “comprehensive immigration reform.” That was accurate: They don’t want to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and they are increasingly cold to theories that killing the bill will hurt their party.
But the party leadership—and to a larger extent, the party’s grandees and donors—see a risk if House Republicans are blamed for killing a deal that passed in the Senate. On MSNBC’s Now With Alex Wagner, just three hours before this meeting, Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador had insisted that Democrats’ obstinance was the real reason the bill would fail. “If Chuck Schumer’s not going to accept anything unless he gets 100 percent of what he wants, then he’s the one who’s killing immigration reform,” said Labrador. Nobody believes that, given that the Senate did pass something, it included border security that Schumer hadn’t wanted, and Labrador himself had bolted a House dealmaking group.
So the House is embracing chaos while nudging members toward a tolerant-sounding message. According to members in the room, the meeting began with House Speaker John Boehner calling the immigration dialogue “important” and insisting that the House would have to stay engaged. Majority Leader Eric Cantor compared the need for some kind of GOP alternative to the alternative “economic stimulus package” the party proposed in the deep minority back in 2009.
Rank-and-file members had been worried about this possibility. They feared that any bill that made it out of their body, no matter how limited, would go to the conference committee composed of House and Senate negotiators and be Frankensteined into a new comprehensive bill. “We want to hear that none of the bills that come out of the House will serve as a Trojan horse that can be changed and morphed in conference committee,” said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, “so that we’ll have an amnesty bill on the House floor.”
The fear is reasonable, because Senate compromisers openly talk about it. “If the House passes any kind of border bill, or security bill, or any other element,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker told reporters Tuesday, “it still gives an opportunity for a conference to occur. And I think if a conference occurs, we still have a chance of getting a more comprehensive piece of legislation.”
In the Wednesday meeting, Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton asked leaders to make sure that this wouldn’t happen. The leaders tried to calm them down, with some success. “I think that Speaker Boehner is very aware of that,” said Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn. “He won’t let it happen in the first place.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta, who rose to fame in the 2000s as a small-city mayor cracking down on illegal immigration, was a little less satisfied. “It was addressed by leadership,” he said. “I can’t say whether it put to rest the concerns. I’m not concerned, because I won’t vote for anything but border security first.”
More importantly for Republicans, Barletta left the meeting talking more positively about a small piece of happy-sounding reform. Like many Republicans leaving the meeting, he wondered whether the House could pass something that made citizenship obtainable for young people who’d been brought to America by their lawbreaking parents.
“They are in a special category,” said Arizona Rep. Trent Franks. He’s been such a solid “no” on comprehensive reform that McCain didn’t bother to lobby him when they shared a plane to Washington on Wednesday morning. But a sop to the Dreamers might make sense. “What puts them in a special category is that they did not break the law. Their parents did, but they didn’t.”
There’s no current Republican version of the Dream Act, last seen dying in the 2010 lame duck session after nearly every Republican senator voted against it. Yet Republicans have been warming to the idea. Last week, in town hall meetings, multiple members—including the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Bob Goodlatte—used a version of the “they did nothing wrong” pitch. It’s a problem that really does concern Republican members, and what would Democrats do if this House tried to fix it? Kill that bill?
“There were some voices of strong compassion for people in that situation,” said Lamborn, describing the mood in the room. “It was a situation they didn’t cause. They were thrust into it.”
There were holdouts. Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who won a Republican-leaning seat in the 2010 wave and stands no chance of losing it, left the meeting for a row of cameras and microphones. He quoted “America the Beautiful,” just as he’d quoted it in the meeting: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” He’d oppose “anything that rewards or ratifies illegal conduct,” because “if anyone who’s come to this country as a first act thumbed their nose at our law, we should not bestow upon them our highest honor, which is citizenship.”
The challenge for Republicans is to let members like Brooks talk the way they talk while finding some neat way out of the impasse. According to Lamborn, Republicans definitely wanted to vote on something before the end of the year, as long as they can keep it tight.
“I as a mayor saw many times how people used fraudulent documents to stay in the country,” said Barletta. “My concern is how we separate the salt from the sugar. How do we separate the people who were brought here through no fault of their own from the people faking it?” Implicit in that, though: At least some of the people living illegally in the United States are a little sweet.